Jamie P. Merisotis, President, Lumina Foundation for Education
The Louise McBee Lecture, University of Georgia, Athens, GA
Good morning, and thank you. I am honored to have the opportunity to deliver this year’s Louise McBee Lecture, and I’d like to thank President Adams and Dr. Morris for extending me that honor. I realize I am following in some rather large footsteps—those of previous McBee lecturers such as Pat Graham and Sandy Astin and Molly Broad—not to mention those of Louise McBee herself: a giant in higher education and state policy.
I hope I merit inclusion in that group. I guess you will make that decision.
It is my contention that America’s continued prosperity and social stability very much depend on this nation’s system of higher education. Historically, that system has served the nation fairly well—and it continues to serve some segments of the population quite well, indeed. Unfortunately, to borrow a phrase from the mutual fund prospectus you receive in the mail: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” In fact, considering the economic, social and demographic challenges we face as a nation, the past performance of American higher education seems clearly insufficient.
This morning, I want to urge us all to set the bar much higher—to reach for a “Big Goal” in college attainment that can truly improve Americans’ long-term prospects. I also intend to lay out some practical, actionable steps that my Lumina colleagues and I believe are necessary to help us reach that higher goal.
Before I get into specifics, however, let me take a moment to provide a bit of background on Lumina. Lumina Foundation for Education is a national foundation, established nine years ago in Indianapolis. With assets of more than $1 billion dollars, Lumina is one of nation’s 40 largest private foundations. And we have just one mission: getting more Americans into and through college. In fact, we are the nation’s largest foundation devoted exclusively to increasing college access and success.
For most of the two years I’ve served as the Foundation’s president, we have pursued that mission by focusing on one specific aim. I already hinted at it a moment ago when I referred to a “Big Goal” for college completion, so let me spell it out clearly. Lumina’s Big Goal is this: By the year 2025, we want 60 percent of the American population to hold high-quality college degrees or credentials. Today, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 have at least a two-year degree. This 40 percent figure is virtually identical to the group of Americans between the ages of 55 and 64. To put it plainly, we have not done any better with the current generation than we did with their parents—a span of nearly four decades.
So, over the next 16 years, my colleagues and I want to increase the percentage of Americans with college degrees a full 20 percentage points. Clearly, you can see why we call it a Big Goal. Of course we know the goal is ambitious, but we’re convinced that it is attainable. More important, we feel this goal is vital to the nation’s economic security and social stability, for several reasons:
The first reason is global competition. The troubling fact is, college attainment rates are rising in almost every industrialized or post-industrial country in the world, except for the United States. In several other countries, more than half of young adults are degree holders—and rates in many of these countries are continuing to climb. So, if we hope to remain competitive and ensure our nation’s continued prosperity and stability, we must aim high— and that’s one reason for the 60 percent target.
Perhaps an even more compelling reason for reaching the Big Goal is that our changing workforce demands it. Even those who might question the relevance of the OECD statistics—and there have been such questions recently—even these experts agree that American higher education must better adapt itself to the knowledge economy. They know that to succeed in today’s workforce, Americans must have more advanced knowledge and skills. Experts agree that today’s “middle-class” jobs—those that ensure a good quality of life for citizens—are less and less attainable without education or training beyond high school.
Top labor economist Tony Carnevale at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has estimated that by 2018, 63 percent of all jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training. That’s a huge increase since the mid-’70s, when less than 30 percent of jobs required anything beyond a high school education.
A paper released just yesterday by Carnevale and his colleagues shows that for virtually every major job category, more postsecondary education is critical to job success. For example, in 1973, only 38 percent of office workers had some kind of postsecondary education. Today nearly 70 percent of office workers have some postsecondary education, with 40 percent having at least a bachelor’s degree. In the health care and education sectors, which continue to grow as human capital become more important in the knowledge economy, the same patterns can be seen. Since the 1970s, education and health care jobs have increased from 10 percent to almost 20 percent of all jobs. The share of these jobs requiring at least some college increased from fewer than half in the 1970s to more than 75 percent today. And the list goes on: More postsecondary education is needed for factory jobs—with the dominance of advanced manufacturing techniques—natural resource jobs, and most of the other major job categories.
Carnevale’s data fit seamlessly with the latest feedback from employers—most of whom seem to be pleading for better-educated workers. In a survey conducted just last month by the Business Roundtable, 65 percent of employers said they already require an associate’s degree or higher for most positions. And half of these employers said there is such a serious gap between their needs and their employees’ skills that productivity within their companies is slipping.
So, global economic and workforce trends are compelling us to work toward this Big Goal. But there are other reasons, too. One is simply to extend to more individuals the financial benefits of earning a degree. Those benefits are obvious and undeniable. One benefit is the so-called wage premium of a college education. Analyses by Carnevale and many other economists show that real wages continue to increase despite the increasing supply of individuals with college educations. Between 1983
and 2007 the number of workers with associate degrees increased from 7.6 million to 9.1 million workers. Their real—that is, inflation-adjusted—wages increased from $25,000 to $33,000. Over the same period, the number of those with a bachelor’s degree increased from 10 million to 20 million, and in spite of the increased supply, their average real wages increased from $33,000 to $48,000. And the number of prime-age workers with a master’s degree or higher increased from 4 million to 10 million. Their average real wages increased from $45,000 to $72,000.
Perhaps more important from my vantage point is that increasing degree completion will bring societal benefits as well: Higher rates of volunteerism, voting and philanthropic giving … decreased rates of crime and poverty … a reduced need for public assistance, including health care. These are benefits we all share when attainment rates rise.
Finally, that Big Goal is an important means for addressing social inequity. Right now, the benefits I mentioned are being distributed unfairly—and this inequity is a threat to all of us as Americans. Higher education attainment rates among certain population groups in this country—including adults, first-generation college going students, low-income students and students of color—are significantly lower than those of other students. As I’m sure you’re aware, these achievement gaps have endured for decades, and may now actually be widening. This trend is especially alarming given demographic trends showing that, by 2050, “minorities” will actually constitute a majority of the U.S. population. They already do in four of the 50 states—California, Texas, New Mexico, and Hawaii.
So, for all of these reasons, you can see why Lumina has embraced this Big Goal. And it’s clear that others have embraced it, too, including the President of our country, who has pledged to make the United States the best-educated nation in the world by 2020. Policymakers in many states are looking for ways to boost student success as a way to improve their long-term economic outlook. Many of our peers—including the Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, just to name a few—are making significant investments in efforts to improve college completion.
Clearly, this issue is moving higher on the national agenda. But I am convinced it must move up even further. So, for the rest of our time together, I’d like to explain how we can actually do that.
First of all, it’s important to note that, in a sense, this is all we plan to do at Lumina Foundation. In other words, for this foundation, the issue of college attainment is the entire agenda. We’re not just guided by a broad mission; we are driven toward a specific outcome. And as an organization that is relentlessly outcome-focused, we knew we couldn’t just stop after establishing our Big Goal. Rather, we developed a workable plan to reach it.
Our Strategic Plan is not a concept. It is very real and tangible and truly guides our decisions and our work. It is clearly delineated in a document that we’ve printed and posted on our Web site. There is no secret plan that we are actually following; the plan you can download is the one we use.
Our Strategic Plan depends on collaborative work among many different stakeholders. We see our role at Lumina as a catalyst that can create a sense of urgency and stimulate action to achieve the Big Goal.
Of course we’re a grant-making organization, and our grants budget is certainly a tool we will continue to use. But that tool can only take us so far in our catalytic role. We have several other tools, including collaboration, communication, convening, evaluation, mission-related investing and research. We try to use all of these tools in a comprehensive and coordinated way, and we try to apply them in several distinct areas. One is fostering effective practice in higher education by developing scalable and sustainable practices that drive toward the Big Goal. Another is supporting effective public policy that can leverage resources to support higher education and prompt the large-scale changes demanded by the Big Goal. Finally we apply these tools by building the public will for change by making a strong case for urgent action to help improve student preparation, success and productivity in higher education.
Those last three issues I mentioned make up the three critical outcomes that are the main focus of my remarks today—three significant results that must be produced for the Big Goal to be reached. Those three outcomes are:
- Students must be prepared academically, financially and socially for success in education beyond high school;
- Higher education success and completion rates must be improved significantly;
- Higher education must become more productive so that it can increase capacity and serve more students.
Of course we know we can’t reach any of these three major outcomes in one step. A number of intermediate outcomes will be necessary in each area to get us where we need to be—and even those intermediate outcomes will require years of focused effort by all of the relevant stakeholders, including those in the higher-education community, philanthropy, business and the policy arena.
Still, we cannot allow the complexity of the problem to discourage us from action. In fact, my aim today is to show you how a focus on these three critical outcomes confronts that complexity and creates a path to that 60 percent goal. So, in that spirit, let me take each of the critical outcomes in turn and “unpack” them to show you what we think needs to happen. Along the way, I’ll share some specific examples of work that is being undertaken to reach those outcomes.
Let’s look first at preparation. As I said earlier, before the Big Goal can be reached, I believe that many more students must be prepared academically, financially and socially for success in education beyond high school. And it’s important to emphasize that all three areas—academic, financial and social—must be addressed as co-equals in the pre-college preparation effort. Research shows that if any of these three aspects is ignored or underemphasized, the road to college becomes very rocky— and, for many, impassable.
Before we can reach the major outcome of ensuring that all students are properly prepared for college success, we believe there are several intermediate steps that must be taken:
- First, states and institutions must create and implement transparent higher education readiness standards, and those standards must be aligned across K_12, adult learner and higher education systems.
- Second, students must be supported to attend and succeed in college through expanded state and community_based higher education outreach networks.
Finally, federal, state and institutional policies must ensure that no student is denied access to higher education because it is too expensive.
To foster achievement of these intermediate outcomes (and thereby improve preparation), a number of specific strategies must be pursued. I’ll share a few of them today—beginning with one that has special relevance right here at the Institute of Higher Education.
One strategy is to expand national postsecondary access outreach and action campaigns.
As many of you know, this strategy is very much alive here in Athens, thanks to IHE’s establishment of the Georgia College Advising Corps last year. This local effort is one of 13 such programs that make up the National College Advising Corps, which is now based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The idea is to take newly minted college graduates and place them in nearby high schools, where they work directly with underrepresented students to help them navigate the college-admissions process. The young mentors provide real-world, hands-on assistance with everything from applications to financial aid to test prep. It’s a very promising program and is a key path to achieving that outcome of expanding outreach for postsecondary access.
Another strategy in the preparation area is to help expand and sustain networks that provide high-quality student service and advocacy. In pursuing this strategy—and the first one as well—we at Lumina have put a great deal of emphasis on an initiative called KnowHow2GO, which is managed in collaboration with the Ad Council and the American Council on Education. This initiative works on two tracks to help young teens get an early start on the path that leads to college success.
The first part of KnowHow2GO is a national public-awareness campaign designed to encourage students in grades eight to 10 to take the necessary steps toward college. The campaign’s public-service advertisements then direct young people to a Web site that connects them to a local network of advocates, advisers and pre-college service providers. This is where the second part of the initiative kicks in: what we at Lumina call the “ground campaign.” As with the College Advising Corps, KnowHow2GO’s ground campaign is very individualized and very much hands-on.
Yet another hands-on strategy to enhance preparation is to encourage innovative approaches that aid the financial preparation of low-income students and their families, including efforts to simplify the financial aid application process.
One successful example of this work is called College Goal Sunday. Every February for two decades, College Goal Sunday volunteers have provided one-on-one assistance to students and families as they fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. For many families—especially those who lack a college-going tradition—the form itself can be a real barrier to college access. College Goal Sunday effectively breaks that barrier. The program, which has aided hundreds of thousands of students over the years, now serves about 35,000 students annually in 39 states—including Georgia, which joined the effort in 2007.
So you can see, there are specific avenues to take in addressing the issue of pre-college preparation. Let’s look now at the second critical outcome: significantly improving the success of students once they enroll in higher education.
To significantly increase completion rates, three intermediate outcomes must first occur:
- Higher education must use proven strategies that already show results in how to move students to completion.
- Quality data must be used to improve student performance and inform policy and decision-making at all levels.
- The outcomes of student learning must be defined, measured, and aligned with workforce needs.
To achieve these outcomes (and thus improve success rates), there are several specific strategies that must be pursued. Again, I’ll list some of those strategies here, citing specific examples to illustrate each.
One strategy is to promote efforts that improve attainment of degrees and certificates by underrepresented students. At Lumina, we have funded dozens of programs that pursue this strategy, including work with minority-serving institutions, specific subpopulations, and others. But let me focus on just one. It’s our largest single initiative, and it’s called Achieving the Dream. Achieving the Dream is focused on improving success rates among community college students—and with good reason. Community colleges educate 44 percent of the nation’s undergraduates. And they are the institutions that serve the majority of students in underrepresented populations—the students whose success rates must improve most dramatically if we hope to reach the Big Goal. Achieving the Dream institutions use a data-driven approach to pinpoint and then attack gaps in student achievement. It’s an approach that’s working at more than 100 colleges in 22 states.
Another strategy is to advocate for the redesign, rebranding and improvement of developmental education. I am fully convinced that more and better developmental education programs are absolutely essential to support the success of at-risk students. And, again, one place to look for successful models of developmental education is at the nation’s community colleges. A recently launched effort called the Developmental Education Initiative, funded largely by the Gates Foundation, will allow 15 colleges to expand some of the nation’s most promising developmental education programs while transmitting those lessons learned to a much broader cadre of institutions.
Finally, a strategy in the “success” area that is seemingly mundane but actually quite important is to advocate for the use of quality data in higher education. Right now, it’s difficult to have a full understanding of how many students are succeeding or failing. Individual institutions keep track of how many students enroll, withdraw and graduate—but there is no feasible, systematic way to follow the progress of students as they transfer to other institutions, leave for other states or enter the workforce.
That’s a fundamental, systemic problem that a national effort called the Data Quality Campaign has taken on as its central mission. In addition, several important studies by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems focus intently on the feasibility of developing a linked system for student-records data and have pointed the way to a much better way of collecting and analyzing data on real students—not the students who fit the neat parameters of a bygone era of limited mobility and flexibility.
All of these efforts—and more that I don’t have enough time to mention—will be key in helping to reach that “success” outcome. But let’s turn now to the final critical outcome: finding ways to increase productivity in the higher education system.
For us, productivity has two components taken straight from the classic economic definition of productivity: efficiency and effectiveness. For the postsecondary system as a whole to be truly productive, two things must happen—and forgive me for taking a businesslike approach in expressing these ideas: First, cost per degree must be reduced, and these savings must be reinvested in the system so that it has the capacity to serve more students. Second, this reduction in “unit cost” cannot be allowed to compromise the quality of those degrees.
Let’s look first at the cost issue. To provide more high-quality degrees and credentials at lower cost, institutions must contain costs and reallocate their resources to programs that help more students succeed. This is not about “doing more with less” or any of those old and unworkable paradigms. In a more efficient higher education system, we should be rewarding institutions that focus on students completing quality programs, not just attempting them. We should be rewarding students for completing courses and degree or certificate programs. We should be expanding and strengthening lower cost, nontraditional education options through modified regulations. And we should be investing in institutions that demonstrate the results of adopting good business practices.
Lumina is actively working to support efforts in all of these areas. For example, 11 states have spent a year developing plans and policy agendas that promote increased higher education productivity in their states. Very soon, several of these states will receive grants that will allow them to implement these plans over a number of years. We have high hopes that these implementation grants will generate even more innovative ideas that can increase efficiency in higher education systems all over the nation.
Again, efficiency is just one aspect of productivity. There’s also the issue of effectiveness—of ensuring that quality is maintained in the educational process. The quality component is critically important to getting to that Big Goal. If you look again at the full statement, you will see that it specifically calls for 60 percent attainment of “high-quality degrees and credentials.”
For us, the definition of quality revolves around one issue: learning. In fact, our Strategic Plan says clearly that a high-quality degree or credential is one that has “well-defined and transparent learning outcomes that provide clear pathways to further education and employment.” We firmly believe that learning—that is, the knowledge, skills and competencies a student gains by taking a college course or program—must be recognized as the primary measure of quality in higher education.
It is clear that learning—all types of learning—can be objectively measured. These measurements are absolutely vital in ensuring the relevance and value of a college credential.
Right now little, if any, credible data is being used to justify the quality distinctions being made in higher education. We judge success mostly by seat time and credit hour, not by skills mastered or knowledge gained. In most cases, we can’t really tell what value an institution truly adds to the lives of its students.
Clearly this needs to change. It is time for the American higher education system to move toward a quality assessment and assurance system that is based firmly on measurable outcomes. All institutions should focus on and measure what is actually being learned. They should clearly define high-quality learning outcomes, help their students achieve those outcomes, and accurately track their own and students’ performance.
Oddly enough, the concept of learning—a subject that seems critical to every discussion about higher education—is often overlooked. We all talk endlessly about the processes of postsecondary education—about ensuring access and fostering student success, about increasing completion rates, about aligning standards—and yet we seem reluctant or unable to discuss its real purpose: equipping students for success in life.
We need to confront some important questions: What exactly are our students learning—and what should they be learning? What knowledge and skills must they have so they can thrive—both as workers in the 21st century global economy and as productive citizens in this democracy?
We understand that such measurement is relatively new … and that it is not easy. But there are tools that have already demonstrated that it’s possible. These range from the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which helps an institution measure how well it contributes to a student’s mastery of higher-order thinking skills, to the Transparency by Design project, which focuses on measuring the learning outcomes of students in online programs.
All of the many existing assessment efforts demonstrate that throughout American higher education, people are developing, using and reporting on common metrics that attempt to show what students really learn. But we should not be limiting ourselves only to American higher education when pursuing this new emphasis on learning. Because we operate in a global society, we also need to take a global perspective. Perhaps the most important of these is what has taken place in Europe through what is known as the Bologna Process. As you may know, this is the process by which 46 European countries have been working for a decade to promote transparency, coordination and quality assurance among their various national higher education systems. As the Bologna group sought to establish a set of commonly understood and commonly accepted postsecondary credentials, the organizers came upon an idea called “tuning,” which I think may apply well in this country.
The idea with tuning is to take various programs within a specific discipline—chemistry, history, psychology, whatever—and agree on a set of learning outcomes that a degree in the field represents. The goal is not for the various programs to teach exactly the same thing in the same way or even for all of the programs to offer the same courses. Rather, programs can employ whatever techniques they prefer, so long as their students can demonstrate mastery of an agreed-upon body of knowledge and set of skills. To use the musical terminology, the various programs are not expected to play the same notes, but to be “tuned” to the same key.
A critical element of tuning is that it is a faculty-led process, rather than added on or imposed from without, as far too many accountability mechanisms have been in the past. Not only does this generate more enthusiastic and substantive participation from faculty, it also allows for more flexibility among the various programs. There are no tuning cookie-cutters. Although everyone works toward a commonly accepted set of learning outcomes, no one need take the same path to get there. Individual institutions, as well as individual disciplines within institutions, design their own curricula, their own delivery methods, their own assessment techniques. This helps preserve the powerful diversity that has always been a great strength of the American system of higher education.
It’s a very interesting project—one that has great potential. And, as with every one of these individual efforts I have outlined for you today, it has a specific place in achieving the outcomes of improved student preparation, success and productivity in higher education that we need to get to that Big Goal by 2025.
Ultimately, these three outcomes represent many things: a sizable body of work that will command our attention for many years; a recognizable path through uncharted terrain; and a series of rallying cries that can encourage us when we falter.
But I hope that these outcomes represent something else as well: an opportunity to make a real and lasting difference. We know that the goal is big—far too big to reach without the commitment of caring partners in every sector of society. But I am convinced that the payoff will be huge—for tens of millions of individual students both now and in the coming years, and for the stronger, more secure nation that those citizens will build.
Thank you again for the honor of being with you.